Subreplacement fertility in the west before the baby boom. Current and contemporary perspectives

Jan Van Bavel, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Between 1920 and 1940, fertility has been below the replacement level in many western countries for about ten to twenty years. In today's scholarly literature, the interwar fertility trough is explained by economic crisis and war threat. This paper collects series of fertility and net reproduction rates that are hard to reconcile with such a view. It then confronts current with contemporary interpretations of low fertility during the interwar period. The views held by interwar demographers appear to differ remarkably from current interpretations. According to contemporary interpretations, low fertility was not due to war threat or economic crisis but rather to rising individualism, secularization, rationalization, and consumerism. These were trends that, according to leading sociologists, economists, and demographers of the first half of the twentieth century, were already going on at least since the nineteenth century. The paper concludes by discussing some implications for current theorizing about subreplacement fertility.

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Presented in Session 63: Comparative fertility in low fertility settings